TEXTS: Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7; Matthew 4:1-11
Our Old Testament lesson finds newly created humanity challenged from the start. God puts the humans in a glorious garden and says to them, “Everything here is fair game, you can use the plants of the garden as you please . . . except for that one single tree there in the middle of the garden. If you eat of its fruit you will die.” When I read that passage, I envision a three-year old and a room full toys. Mom says, “Here are all your toys to play with, but don’t you dare touch that thing over there.”
Now the serpent (who we are told is the craftiest of all God’s creatures) finds Adam and Eve admiring that one tree that they are not supposed to touch and suggests that they will not die if they eat the forbidden fruit of the forbidden tree, but instead that they will “be like God”. And there is my friends, “Do this and you will be like God!” Isn’t that what we all desire ,deep down inside, above everything else? Isn’t that the base of all our other desires? If only I could change that. If only I could win that. If only I could be that. And nearly all those “thats” are things that are really beyond our humanity, beyond all our human abilities, beyond our human limits.
“You will not die” says the serpent to Adam and Eve (note that we are clearly told that the man is there with the woman). “God is lying to you; God is protecting his position as God; God doesn’t want any competition from other gods or even from you. That’s why God doesn’t want you to eat the fruit of this tree. God knows you will not die. God knows you be like gods. Don’t you want be like God? Don’t you want to know everything? Don’t you want to be able to do anything?
Friends, this is what serpents do. This is what the crafty do when they want to steer us in their direction. They tell us that others lie. They tell us that others want to keep the real truth from us. They tell us that doing what they suggest will make everything better, everything safer, everything more prosperous for us. And what will our actions, our advancement cost others? What will it cost creation? What will it cost us, in the end? We are told by the crafty, “Don’t worry about that. That element is of no consequence to us.”
Which bring us to our gospel lesson for the day. Adam and Eve were tempted in the garden and they failed the test. Actually, they failed quite miserably. Now we have a new deceiver; a being who is most certainly the craftiest creature of it’s age. And again the tempter is making suggestions. The only problem is that the old line used by serpent, “You will be like God.” doesn’t play well in this circumstance because Jesus is God; fully human and yet fully divine. So the deceiver changes the pattern up a bit. Instead of saying “You will be like God.”, the tempter challenges Jesus with the words, “If you are the son God . . . ” followed essentially by, “prove it!”
Jesus is still fully human and subject to all the emotions, all the feelings of humanity. If you stomp on his toe he will say “ouch”. If you tell a really good joke, he will laugh. If you deprive him of food and water he will be hungry and thirsty. The NRSV translation of the Bible tells us that Jesus was famished; not just hungry, not just wishing a bit for a burger and fries; no, Jesus was famished, starving, feeling like he could die. “And you know Jesus,” says the deceiver, “you have the ability; you have the power; you are, after all, God. Say the word and that pile of rocks could be a pile of loaves of bread. Come on Jesus, you know you can, you know you want to. Come on Jesus, you deserve it.”
And what was Jesus’ response? Does Jesus offer some Godly edict? Does Jesus use his divine powers to lash out against the Devil? No, Jesus offers up from the depths of his humanity a quotation of a law that had been given to humans, the law of Moses, the law of his people Israel.
The second challenge of the deceiver was not too different than the first. “If you are the son of God – prove it. Put yourself in harm’s way. Surely God will not let anything happen to you.” It is a temptation that was repeated even as Jesus, in his humanity, was dying on the cross. We are told that those who passed by called out to him, “If you are the son of God come down from there. Save yourself Jesus.”
And the third challenge was the classic, “you can have everything if you just do what I say.” “Team up with me instead of with the father. You can rule the world, Jesus.” And think of what that temptation could mean. Jesus could rule the world – and rule it with justice, with truth, with grace and love and compassion. Just think what a great world this could have been if Jesus had taken the Devil up on that deal. All the nations of the world would have been his! He could have set up those nations in any way he chose.
I don’t know why, but whenever think about this temptation, the lottery springs to mind. For only a buck you could be a winner! You could win millions, tens of millions, maybe hundreds of millions! I checked yesterday’s paper. The pick six jackpot was at $2.5 million. The Powerball jackpot was $68 million. The Megamillions jackpot was at 94 million dollars! With 94 million dollars (oops, I forgot to deduct the taxes) at 40 million dollars, you could be anybody you want to be. You could do anything you want to do. Think even of the good that you could do with 40 million dollars! Imagine the hungry that could be feed, the homeless that you could house . . . if only . . . if only. Anyway, back to Jesus. “You could rule the world!” says the tempter. That’s even better than the lottery, isn’t it? You could rule the whole world, every nation, every person; you could rule them for good, you could rule them with equity and justice. And Jesus’ reply? “Away with you Satan!”
Now friends, I don’t believe that this passage is present in the gospel of Matthew solely to give us the message, “Jesus could resist temptation and so can you.” Nor do I believe that this story was included in Matthew’s gospel simply to show us that in his divinity Jesus could essentially resist any temptation. I believe that Matthew saw this story as important enough include in his Gospel to remind the early Christian church and us that Jesus had within him a humanity that could be challenged, and that in his humanity he knew how to reach for the divine grounding in God his Father in order to stand firm against the tempter; a grounding that is available to us as well. Think about it; if Jesus could somehow step out of his humanity during that time of temptation, then the first temptation especially would be null and void. One who is divine has no need, ever, for food and certainly would not be “famished”.
If there message to be carried away from both the Old Testament and the Gospel lessons today, it is that temptation will always be a part of our lives, whether in the form of a serpent or an entity called the Devil, or just in the ways of the world around us. Sometimes, and especially when we draw upon the strength of the divine one, our God, we will have the power to resist temptation. And always whenever we succumb to temptation or give in to temptation there be consequences. Adam and Eve fell to the temptation of the serpent and were driven out of the garden. When I succumb to the temptation to play the next round of Megamillions, I am told that the odds are nearly 259 million to 1 that I will be dollar poorer than I was before I played the game; even as thousands upon thousands of people become a dollar poorer each minute that the game operates.
The good news that is ours in Christ is that God loves us and is gracious to us; loving us when we resist temptation and remain faithful, loving us when we succumb to temptation and fail in our faithfulness, loving us even when we succumb to temptation so quickly that we are hardly tempted in the least (like me and dark chocolate). God will always love us, no matter what, just like a good parent will love his or her child no matter what; loving that child when that child’s life is good and when that child’s life is bad and sometimes when that child’s life is just plain ugly. God calls us to be the best that we can possibly be, and only God knows how good that is. It is our task as children God and as faithful followers of God’s Son to strive for the Godly ideal and to live the righteousness of God. And sometimes, sometimes we might just do a pretty good job it. And sometimes we will not. But always God will be there with us; to celebrate our success, to forgive our blunders, to comfort us in our sorrow and to encourage us as we strive. For in all our living and even in our dying, we belong to God through Christ our Savior. Thanks be to God. Amen.